Virtual Reality’s mainstream use in clinical research is no longer a fantasy.
At the recent National Institutes of Health (NIH) Research Festival in America’s capital, attending clinical researchers were encouraged to strap on head-mounted virtual reality (VR) devices and image how they might enhance their clinical and basic research. The NIH even showcased its Virtual Reality Interest Group (VARIG), an organization working to empower scientific researchers in the public and private sectors to use VR technology in clinical research.
Growing numbers of researchers are listening.
Clinical trials registered with the NIH where Virtual Reality (VR) is used as a tool have exploded in the past five years, up nearly four-fold. Between November 2011 and November 2012, a review of the NIH’s clinicaltrials.gov database reveals there were only 22 active clinical studies using virtual reality registered with the NIH. Five years later, there were 81 such studies registered during a similar year-long period.
Less expensive and more readily available VR technology is one reason for the surge. Once prohibitive to many clinical researchers, quality head-mounted VR units like an Oculus Rift or an HTC Vive are now available off-the-shelf for $800 or less. With price no longer a barrier, noted technology research firm Gartner says virtual reality’s adoption across mainstream society is as little as five years away.
However, clinicians are not necessarily buying virtual “experiences” from the Oculus Store or from one of its competitors just to battle virtual dragons or strap on a virtual eagle’s wings and fly (Yes, you can!).
What researchers are doing is using VR for such things as training or distracting the brain so that child burn victims or children with cancer may suffer less stress and/or be treated in less painful ways. How? VR technology can allow a user’s normal sensory inputs to be replaced with simulated real or imaginary environments. When done correctly the user experiences “presence” in which they react to stimuli in the virtual world as if it was real. The result: a user like a child burn victim may respond to treatment more positively within a calming virtual environment they are placed in than would be possible otherwise.
Currently, registered clinical trials using VR are underway in multiple areas of mental health, pain management and movement disorders such as those caused by a traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s disease or cerebral palsy.